Teaching Foreign Languages Research Paper Starter

Teaching Foreign Languages

In the United States the provision of foreign language instruction at the K-12 level varies. Policy and national standard recommendations call for the development of long-term, sequential, and continuous foreign language instruction from kindergarten through grade 12 and beyond. Such instruction would enable American children to develop higher levels of linguistic proficiency as well as cultural competency in target languages. Recently, special attention has been called to the need for foreign language proficiencies, especially in less commonly taught languages that are deemed critical for national security. The ACTFL National Standards for Foreign Language Instruction provide a framework for what such programs should do within the K-12 context and beyond. Available national resources are discussed as well as the current state of K-12 national foreign language programs.

Keywords ACTFL National K-12 Foreign Language Standards; American Council of Teachers of Foreign Languages (ACTFL); Immersion; Foreign Language Experience Program (FLEX); Foreign Language in the Elementary School (FLES); Foreign Language Proficiency; Less Commonly Taught Languages (LCTL); Performance Guidelines; Proficiency Guidelines; World Languages


There are approximately 6912 spoken languages in the world (Gordon, 2005) and the United States has 311 languages. However in the United States, learning a language other than English and developing the cultural competencies that are part of foreign language learning, has not been high priority in public education (Sigsbee, 2002).

English has become the language of international business, science, politics, and the Internet. While the world understands us, we do not understand the world. People all over the world have access to our literature, intelligence, technical manuals, academic journals and our culture. But we lack the ability to do the same in other languages (National Virtual Translation Center, 2007a, par. 2).


This one-way linguistic and cultural isolation from the world community has significant implications for the future opportunities of American K-12 students as they exit school. According to the statement put forth by the Committee for Economic Development (2006), a non-partisan, non-political, non-profit independent research organization, U.S. students lack the linguistic and cultural skills of their peers in other nations. This lack of knowledge has a negative impact not only on our national security, but on our nation's ability to progress economically in the global marketplace (Committee for Economic Development, 2006; United States Department of Education, 2006). From small businesses to multi-nationals, the ability to effectively communicate in the languages and cultures of international consumers, business partners, and employees is crucial (CED, 2006).

The Center for Applied Linguistics Stated in 2006 that 24% of American public elementary schools offer foreign language instruction and that of those, a majority of the programs do not focus on foreign language proficiency. By 2013, however, that number had dropped, especially in rural school districts. Instead, the programs seek merely to expose children to foreign language and culture. Among American high schools, students who study a foreign language take Spanish, French, German, or Latin. The need for proficient speakers of Less Commonly Taught Languages, or LCTL's, (ED, 2006, CED, 2005) is urgent. Critical or Less Commonly Taught Languages are defined in the U.S. as those languages other than French, Spanish, and German (Center for Advanced Research in Second Language Acquisition, n.d.).

Only a small minority American high school students are learning Chinese, Korean, Farsi, Arabic, Russian, Urdu, or Japanese. By 2011, however, the number of students studying Chinese had begun increasing, tripling between 2005 and 2008 and continuing to grow.

Rather than addressing national economic and security needs that require a multi-lingual and culturally competent citizenry, many schools are actually narrowing their available programs of study because of the educational reform movement. For example, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, which holds schools accountable in the reading, mathematics and science achievement of all students, encourages schools to devote more time and resources to those subjects. While those subjects are critical, many students remain ill prepared as global citizens as they are not offered the opportunity to learn other languages and cultures (CED, 2006).

A Critical Need

In terms of national security, diplomats and federal employees need to be able to communicate effectively, with cultural understanding and awareness with other nations (CED, 2006). Bremer reports (as cited in CED, 2006) that in 2004, three years after 9/11, the United States Foreign Service had eight Arabic speakers at the highest proficiency level and only 27 at the next highest level of proficiency.

In view of the inadequate numbers of American citizens prepared to function in a multi-linguistic and culturally diverse global society, 300 leaders from business and industry, national, federal, state, and local government agencies, foreign nations, academia, and foreign language interest groups came together in 2004 to address the issue (NLC, 2005). They identified trends, best practices and the foreign language and culture needs at various levels of both the private and government sectors. From their work, they determined that a national foreign language strategy was needed to engage the American public and made several recommendations.

One of those recommendations was that federal, state, and local government agencies should allocate resources and establish foreign language requirements from kindergarten through advanced degrees. They further recommended that standards-based policies be applied and implemented throughout the educational pipeline and that educational systems at the primary and secondary levels (as well as beyond) ensure continuous language and cultural instruction that would lead to advanced linguistic and cultural proficiency (CED, 2005).

Further Insights

An Optional National Agenda

While a national agenda may exist in teaching foreign languages, it is optional. It is up to each state government to decide what students must study in order to earn a high school diploma. The state responsibility is met through the local school systems. If the state does not require a continuous foreign language program or even limited foreign language instruction, local districts can and do decide, contrary to national economic and security needs, not to offer such programs. In many districts and in many states, foreign languages are simply not part of the core curriculum (Sigsbee, 2002).

For those districts and those states who value foreign language education for all students, there are resources available. In addition to the plethora of diverse state foreign language guidelines, standards, and assessments, there are national foreign language standards, national foreign language proficiency guidelines, and a growing number of federally funded (ED, 2007) national resources in second language teaching research, best practices, instructional tools and technology that can be used in the K-12 setting (Marcos, n.d.).

The first national standards in K-12 foreign language instruction were published in 1996 by the ACTFL and called the Standards for Foreign Language Learning: Preparing for the 21st Century. These standards were to address the definition and function of U.S. foreign language instruction in the K-12 setting and were created based on a consensus of language educators, business, government, and other stakeholders (Marcos, n.d.). They do not describe the current state of U.S. K-12 foreign language instruction, rather they describe best practices in the field and specify content standards, or what students should be able to know and do, in foreign languages (ACTFL, 1996). The second edition of the standards was published in 1999 and added information about how to apply the standards in specific languages (Marcos, n.d). The specific languages included in the national standards are: Chinese, Japanese, Russian, Classical languages, French, Spanish, German, Italian, and Portuguese (Scebold & Wallinger, 2000). The third edition, published in 2006 added Arabic specific-guidelines (ACTFL, 2006).

The ACTFL national standards support the ideal that second language instruction should begin at the elementary level and continue sequentially through the middle school and high school levels as well as beyond (ACTFL, 1996). It does not specify a curriculum or sequence of instruction but describes the learning experiences needed to achieve the standards. It is based on five goals areas critical to linguistic and cultural learning:

• Communication,

• Cultures,

• Connections,

• Comparisons and

• Communities.

The most fundamental aspect of which is communication (ACTFL, 1996).

Second Language Proficiency

Language learning is much more than the development of linguistic facility in the writing, speaking, reading, and aural comprehension of a given language. Second language proficiency means that one can effectively use the second language to communicate within specific contexts and function appropriately according to the often hidden rules of the second language community.

For example, yes does not always mean yes. Take for example, someone from a culture that is used to straightforward, even if unpleasant, responses in the business context. Imagine that she or he needs to confirm arrival of a multi-million dollar shipment by a specific time from a colleague or partner in another part of the world. When the question is asked, "Will the parts be here by such and such a date?" The answer may very well be, "Yes." Unbeknown to the requester who assumes a uniform worldview (that of his or her own culture) the person sending the parts knows that there is some doubt as to whether the shipment will be able to go out on time. However, in her or his culture it would not be appropriate to displease or offend the requester. Lack of cultural competencies in today's global economy can be expensive to those who are linguistically and culturally handicapped.

The 5 Goals of ACTFL

Without cultural competency, there can be no true communication in the target language. Second language learners need to have an awareness and understanding of both the culture of "self" and the culture of "other" to successfully negotiate communication in the context of "we." What is said or written is not always indicative of what is meant. The first and second goals of communication and culture of the ACTFL Standards recognize the interdependence of culture and language (ACTFL, 1996).

The third goal, connections, permits the second language learner to access bodies of knowledge that are not available to a monolingual (ACTFL, 1996). With a second language, one can access current events, history, or recent works and discoveries in any discipline that are unknown by non-users of the second language. These connections could be to literature, art, sports, medicine, and a multitude of other areas of knowledge. For those limited to monolingual status, information and ideas are restricted.

The fourth goal of the ACTFL Standards, comparison, speaks to the necessity of second language learners to compare and contrast their own language and cultures with that of the target language and culture. These comparisons allow second language learners to better understand themselves as well as others. They enlighten the learner to the existence of a multiplicity of worldviews (ACTFL, 1996).

The fifth goal of the ACFTL National Foreign Language Standards is communities. Learners cannot develop linguistic and cultural competencies in isolation of the people who regularly use the language. Through interaction within local and global multilingual communities, second language learners can develop the ability to interact appropriately with speakers of the target language and culture (ACTFL, 1996).

Within the broad goals of communication, culture, comparisons, connections and communities, there are specific standards. Provided for the standards are general progress indicators that describe what second language learning students should be able to know and do at the 4th,...

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